When I was a young boy, my mother used to lull me to sleep by telling me bible stories at bedtime. And the fascinating thing is that those stories were epic in my young mind, and I guess with children things are always larger in scale. But I remember one story in particular that was burned into my memory and that was the story of the three Hebrew boys, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who refused to compromise their beliefs at the risk of death and how when they were thrown into the fiery furnace, there was a fourth being who stood with them. That story is a testament to the Sovereign power of God, that God is able and that He is always in control.
I had a conversation with someone not too long ago and I said that in this life God never promised that we would have fancy cars, of large mansions or live a long and prosperous life. If you receive such things, then give God his praise but keep in mind that Jesus only promised that we would have suffering (John 16:33) “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Do not believe the false teachers out there who preach prosperity gospels. There is no such thing. The suffering of the faithful is still part of God’s plan. But with suffering comes perseverance. That is no less true today than in the second century. And it was true in Daniel’s day when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood before mighty King Nebuchadnezzar. This king, who had just seen the power of God when Daniel revealed to the king the meaning of his dreams, decided to set up a golden image about 90 feet high and 9 feet wide for all to worship.
Daniel 3:4 - Then the herald loudly proclaimed, “Nations and peoples of every language,this is what you are commanded to do: 5 As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. 6 Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.” 7 Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the nations and peoples of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
When he ordered all his leaders to bow down before the golden image, all bowed down in worship except for the Hebrew boys. When called to give an account of their disobedience, King Nebuchadnezzar gave them one last chance to bow down in worship to the golden idol when they hear the music or face death by being thrown into a fiery furnace for their defiance. And this king, who had an overestimation of himself, asked those boys, “which god will be able to rescue them out of his hands?” This brings me to the title of this sermon, “But if not.”
MEN OF CONVICTION
In response to Nebuchadnezzar’s attempt to give them a second chance, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter (verse 16). They stood in the presence of this king, who they knew was terrifying, who they knew was serious, who they knew would kill if needs be, and they said respectfully, “O king, there is no point in arguing or debating this matter because we have made up our minds to serve only our God because He is the God above all gods. You can save your breath because you will not convince us otherwise of changing our conviction. These were men of conviction!
Their actions were not the product of convenience or comfort, but of conviction. They were men of made up minds who did not need to test the wind to determine if they needed to change their behavior to accommodate their current circumstances. They had no need to defend what they knew to be right and they refused to compromise. They were motivated by what was right and by what pleased God.
There are many people in Christendom today who say they believe but are so easily swayed by any and every doctrine because they have never really been convicted in the first place. Preachers have fallen from grace. Teachers are teaching things contrary to the Word. The church is apostatizing. But what about us? Where do we stand? When was the last time we compromised our faith because of fear or gain? When was the last time we stood firm and said, “I cannot do that. It does not feel right.”
I was preparing taxes for a woman one day last year and she was demanding that I write off these outrageous medical expenses and charitable expenses. I asked her if she had some kind of statement or proof to show me to validate those expenses and she got upset at me saying that I don’t need to see anything and that I should make it up. I was like, “What? Go find another preparer. A few hundred dollars for a return is not enough for me to go to jail.”
Joshua 24:15 - But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD." You can do whatever you want, but I will serve God.
MEN OF CONFIDENCE
If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand (verse 17). There is a strong note of optimism in their voices as they stand before the mightiest man in the world. The fiery furnace was not too many yards away, certainly within eyesight, I would think. They knew the price for disobedience and they disobeyed anyway. The king had asked which god would deliver them and they responded that their God was able to deliver them out of Nebuchadnezzar’s hand. These were men of confidence.
Now what made them talk like this? I answer very simply. They had a big God. They believed in a God who could do anything. That’s why Hebrews 11:34 refers to them when it says, “By faith they quenched the fury of the flames.” Here is strong optimism at a time when hope seemed gone.
God is able. What a thought this is. They knew their God and they knew what he could do. God is able to deliver! God is able to save! God is able to rescue! And how did they know that? They remembered what he had done in the past. He spoke and the stars flew into the skies. He spoke and the planets began spinning around the sun. He turned a rod into a serpent and back into a rod again. He parted the Red Sea. He brought forth water from a rock. He caused the walls of Jericho to come a’tumblin’ down. God is a god of wonders.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had been taught these stories since they were tiny children. Because they knew their God, they knew what he could do. Therefore, in their own time of crisis, they knew beyond any shadow of doubt that God is able. Because they knew what God had done in the past, they knew what he could do in the present. This is the great value that comes from learning God’s Word. You discover who God is, what he has done, and what he can do. I have learned that God is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think because I have seen His work in the past. And what I have seen gives me the confidence to know that God always come through with his promises.
1 Tim. 1:7 - God did not give us a spirit of fear.
MEN OF COMMITMENT
“But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3:18). And so we come to the most powerful words of all. There are various stages in the life of faith and this may be the highest of all. Here they are saying, “We know God can and is able to deliver us but we don’t know if he will deliver us, but either way, we still won’t bow down before your golden image.” Basically they were signing their own death warrant, and they knew it. These were men of commitment.
What a noble example of faith. They hoped for a miracle but they didn’t demand one. They left everything in the hands of God! Consider that little phrase: “but if not.” We want our prayers answered—but if not! We want long life and good health—but if not! We want our children to prosper—but if not! If God says no to your cherished dreams and your fondest hopes, will you still trust him? If God says no to your plans for the future, will you still serve him? If God says no when you pray for those you love, will you still follow him?
This brings us face to face with a doctrine we don’t talk about very much: The Unpredictability of God. That means God does what he wants to do, not what we expect him to do.
These three young men had a big God and they knew that their personal deliverance might not be the most important thing to him. That’s a key insight because for most of us, when we get in a tight place, the only thing we can think about is making sure we get out okay. So when we pray, we say, “O Lord, please get me out of this.” And sometimes we even say, “If it be thy will,” but we don’t say that very loudly because we hope God’s will is the same as ours. But often it isn’t. We see through a glass darkly. At best we see only a glimmer of God’s purposes. But God sees the whole panorama of history stretched out before him.
There are so many mysteries in life. Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God,” which means he knows why everything happens but he’s not telling anyone else. Consider these mysteries: In Acts 12 the Apostle James was killed with the sword; in the same chapter the Apostle Peter was miraculously delivered. Why? Hezekiah asks for and is given 15 more years of life, yet Rachel dies in childbirth on her way to Bethlehem. Why? One man gets cancer and dies at 42, another lives to be 85. Why? One child does well and another struggles all his life. Why? One family knows prosperity and seems to have it made while another can barely make ends meet. Why? Two soldiers go to war, only one comes home. Why? Some prayers are answered, others apparently never answered. Why?
The list could be extended to infinity. There are so many mysteries in the universe. None have clear answers. In the end there is only one answer. I call it The First Rule of the Spiritual Life: He’s God and we’re not! Psalm 115:3 reminds us that “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” What we find in Daniel 3 is faith in God, not just faith in God’s deliverance. These young men are saying, “We are sure of God, but we are not sure what God will do.”
A few moments ago I quoted Hebrews 11:34. But there is more to the story than that. If I left the matter there, I would be leaving a very incomplete picture. It sounds too easy. But living by faith is often very difficult. And it doesn’t always end up the way we would like. In all these things we have the Word of God as our hope and strength. Fear not and trust in Him. Our God is able to deliver us. But if not, may we be found faithful to Christ, even unto death.